Musical Fidelity V-DAC II D/A processor
There's so much uncertainty and confusion surrounding computer audio and high-resolution downloads. Which hi-rez formats will win out? How do you store the downloads you've bought? (Easy. Don't buy them.) How do you access them? Will digital rights management (DRM) cramp your style, or data-storage fees for cloud computing crumple your wallet?
I don't care. I have never paid to download or stream anything, and I probably never will. My priority is to get the most from the several thousand CDs I already own. As cheaply as possible, without "adopting" anything, early or late. Yet I love computer audio when it's fast, fun, and free.
That's why I love inexpensive digital-to-analog converters. Buy one, use it for a few years, and replace it when something better comes along. The Musical Fidelity V-DAC II has come along ($379).
The original V-DAC sold for $299, and I reviewed it in the May 2009 Stereophile (Vol.32 No.5). It was small3.75" (95mm) wide by 1.7" (40mm) high by 6.7" (170mm) deepand powered by a wall wart. It accepted RCA and TosLink optical S/PDIF inputs that upsampled to 24-bit/192kHz, and a USB input that was limited to 16/48: still good enough for Internet radio, I think.
The V-DAC II is the same size and uses the same DSD1792 chip and SRC4392 upsampler, both from Burr-Brown. Unlike the V-DAC, the II incorporates the same asynchronous USB-to-S/PDIF converter found in Musical Fidelity's V-Link ($169), which the V-DAC II renders redundant.
The machined aluminum of the II's front and rear panels replaces the V-DAC's drab black and garish lettering, which reminded me of the jumping beans I used to play with as a kid. A toggle switch selects between the S/PDIF and USB inputs.
I no longer have the original V-DACmy son got it last Christmas. (Now he's going to want the V-DAC II.) Even so, I could tell that the new version's sound surpassed the original's, even though I didn't use its USB inputI want nothing to do with paid downloads.
I heard more resolution, especially space. (Sam loves space.) A sweeter, less fatiguing treblejust the thing to show off the Dynaudio Focus 160 speakers. Better . . . well, focus. I could more precisely pinpoint images. In other words, I heard more where there, as well as more there there. And this is compared not only to my feeble memory of the original V-DAC's sound, but also to the sound of my present M1DAC. The new V-DAC is quicker, smoother, more agile. Who should know better than Quicksilver Audio?
For the most part, I used the Conrad-Johnson ET3 line stage and Quicksilver Silver 88 mono tube amps. I also used the LFD Mk.IV LE integrated. I mostly listened through the Dynaudio Focus 160s.
I was going to give Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson a bell, as they say in Britain, but he beat me to it. (I used to give my late friend Lars a yingle.) "The V-DAC II reclocks and upsamples to 24-bit/192kHz, whether you use S/PDIF or USB," Antony told me. (It's so easy to interview Antony. Like a good politician or general, he interviews himself.) "There's a profound question hidden here, which people sidestep. How can you turn 16 bits into 24 bits because it never was 24 bits? [But when you upsample] you're actually moving all the noise, all the crap, way out of the audioband, so it no longer interferes with the musical signal.
"This is simplistic," Antony continued, "but you can think of it like Dolby noise reduction. They boosted the midrange signal. The noise underneath remained the same, but the signal was bigger relative to the noise.
"The other interesting thing the V-DAC II does is reclocking. Every input has the same jitter. You don't lose the actual packet of data. It's still there, but you might not be sure of the starting point, and that's what causes jitter. The data packet is thrown off track. Reclocking lets you get the data back."
Antony told me that the V-DAC II's total harmonic distortion (THD) is less than half that of the V-DAC. "The crosstalk is dramatically improved, to 105dB, vs 94 or 95dB with the original V-DAC. This is what gives the superior stereo separation."
That pinpoint focus, if you will. This is very much audible, especially with Dynaudio Focus 160 loudspeakers!
While admitting the sonic superiority of genuine 24/96, Antony was no more eager to kill off the CD than I am: "Really good 16-bit/44.1kHz upsampled like this is really fantastic, but most people haven't heard it."
I have. For $379, you can, too.
John Atkinson, August 2012 (Vol.35 No.8)
The budget-priced Musical Fidelity V-DAC II is powered by a small wall wart. It has two digital inputs, S/PDIF and USB, selected with a small toggle switch. The S/PDIF input is offered on both TosLink and coaxial jacks, but only one can be used at a time. There is one set of analog outputs, single-ended on RCA jacks. The original V-DAC was reviewed by Sam Tellig in November 2009 and cost $299. Originally priced at $349, the V-DAC II now costs $379 but incorporates the asynchronous USB data receiver of Musical Fidelity's V-Link ($169), which allows the V-DAC II to handle data with a 24-bit word length and sample rates of up to 96kHz rather than be limited by the original's 16 bits and 48kHz. It still uses Burr-Brown's DSD1792 D/A chip and SRC4392 upsampler chip, however. Although the V-DAC II is $100 less expensive than the Halide DAC HD, the cost of cables brings its price closer to that of the Halide.
As with the Halide, setting up the V-DAC II is no more complicated than plugging it into a USB port on the host computer. Neither converter sounded harsh, which is what you might expect from inexpensive DACs. I agree with Sam that the Musical Fidelity had a sweet, nonfatiguing sound, though the Halide was, if anything, even sweeter. The V-DAC II had somewhat more extended low frequencies than the Halide. I had recently ripped to Apple Lossless files the Gary Burton Quartet's groundbreaking 1969 album Lofty Fake Anagram (CD, One Way). The Halide kept a little better control of the lows of, for example, Steve Swallow's double-bass solo in "Good Citizen Swallow," while not having as much weight. However, the Musical Fidelity's extra low-frequency energy is not as well controlled as it might be. The admittedly overwarm double bass in "Killing the Blues," from Alison Kraus and Robert Plant's Raising Sand (ALAC file transcoded from FLAC download with Max, Rounder/HDtracks 11661), was a bit too fat with the Musical Fidelity compared with the Halide.
More significant, the Musical Fidelity sounded drier than the Halide DAC HD, there being a little less of the St. Francis Auditorium's ambience audible with the Mozart Flute Quartet from my Serenade recording (Apple Lossless file, ripped from CD, Stereophile STPH009-2): the violin, viola, and cello were presented as being more in the same plane as the flute. Overall, this aspect of the Halide's sound pushed it ahead of the V-DAC II for me, for whom "more space" is always more better. However, it's fair to point out that the Musical Fidelity is more versatile than the Halide, having both coaxial and TosLink S/PDIF inputs as well as USB.John Atkinson